The step up to 'big' school
Starting in secondary school is a big step for all young people and for some this can be a daunting experience. Many primary and secondary schools these days have programmes where they liaise with each other to prepare primary school children for this step up which goes some way to making the transition easier. One of the challenges facing students is that at the end of their primary school career they are ‘at the top of the tree’ in academic knowledge and also ‘hierarchical status’ within their school, but when starting secondary school suddenly they are at the bottom of the ladder. Adding to the ‘stress’ are the unfamiliar environments of new teachers, structure of days, probably more rules, more lesson subjects, new classmates, different and bigger buildings and expectations from themselves and families. There is also often a considerable physical difference too compared to the older secondary school students who they have to mix with. With all of this to contend with it’s no wonder some young students are worried about this change. So what can be done to make this transition easier?
Self-esteem plays a huge part in how young people cope as from about eleven years of age a change happens in that young people begin to value and see themselves mostly in relation to their peers. How they behave, look and their thinking is more and more influenced by how they fit within their school environment and can change depending on who is around them. How young people make a start from day one in secondary school can affect them for their entire secondary school life. So if they do or say something that stands out (such as saying something ‘silly’ or wrong) that can get picked up and others can begin to make negative comments and over time this may build up into bullying for instance.
Parental and family support is especially important for the early days and weeks of starting school, being there for the young person not only for when things don’t go well but also for when they do. So when things are going well, discussing with the young person why things went well and how does that make them feel when things go well can help encourage them to continue to make an effort.
However, it may be that school doesn’t go so well, maybe the young person is feeling a bit overwhelmed by the new experience, struggling with academic aspects of new subjects, having to be more organised, finding out where they ‘fit’ within the classroom hierarchy for instance. This is common and is where parental/family support is also important.
There are some things that can help. Firstly to recognise that if the young person isn’t happy or is worrying, to take what they say as real for them. As an adult we may think that what the young person is worrying about is minor, but for them it isn’t, such as talking to a teacher about say, not understanding what was said in class or set for homework. Young people often don’t like talking to teachers for fears of being told off or thinking that the teacher will think they are stupid or not good enough. Whilst it may be tempting to say “don’t be silly”, this won’t help as they are most likely already feeling ‘silly or stupid’. Being there for the young person to listen to what they have to say and then discussing a solution will work better, such as reassuring them that teachers are there to help.
Improving self-esteem can be helped by the young person making a list of all of the good points about themselves, any achievements, any skills and also asking what family and friends think about them and keep this where the young person can easily refer to it. So if they are having self-doubts, they have this to remind them how good they are.
Remind the young person of any previous situations that were new to them that they are now fine with such as starting a club or sport or dance group for instance. Remind them how they felt to start with and that it’s okay to feel unsure or nervous, that’s normal, but after a while things settle down. Also explain to them that most new students will be feeling nervous too and the older students would also have felt the same when they started.
If you notice your child isn’t happy at school, encourage them to talk about why they are not happy and contact the school pastoral staff. Pastoral staff are there to make life as easy for students as possible and are happy to find the best solutions that suit all concerned. Most students find stepping up to secondary school quite daunting and most learn to adapt without problems quite quickly, but for a few they do struggle. It is for these few that spotting signs early and stepping in to help can go a long way to preventing more serious problems developing later in school life.
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